A difficult (non-rational?) prayer


The origin of one of the most significant prayers of the Jewish High Holiday services – Avinu Malkeinu, “Our Father, Our King” – which many Jews find “meaningful and inspiring,” is based on a story told in different versions, which is most-likely a legend. It sustained its viability, like the Kol Nidre prayer, because of the music that was attached to it, not its words. Kol Nidre became controversial because of its idea that one can retroactively and proactively annul vows, and Avinu Malkeinu because of its depiction of God as a masculine figure.

The Talmudic version in Taanit 25b relates a story about a devastating draught. Rabbi Eliezer sought to cause rain to fall by saying “twenty-four blessings, with no answer [no response from God]. Rabbi Akiva led after him, and said [just three parallel lines]:

Our father, our king, we have sinned before you.

Our father, our king, we have no king other than you.

Our father, our king, for your sake, have mercy upon us.

And the rain fell.”

Undaunted by the masculinity in the prayer, its anthropomorphic depiction of God, its almost disrespectful notion that we can teach God what is good for the divine sake, its supposition that humans have the magical ability to produce rain, and ignoring that the story highlights that a short prayer succeeds where a long one fails – just as Moses’ short five word prayer to God to cure his sister from leprosy, Judaism expanded Rabbi Akiva’s prayer, made it far longer than the rejected recital by Rabbi Eliezer, and turned it into one of the most significant High Holiday prayers.

Remarkably, although not at all surprising, while Jews stand for the reading and singing of this prayer to demonstrate that it is import, beat their hearts with their fists as a sign of penitence during recitation, most of the congregation has no idea of its history, when it first appeared in a prayer book, that it exists today in many versions, many women dislike it, or what it means – how the multitude of metaphors in it should be understood.

The 2015 book “Naming God” addresses these problems. It is the sixth very informative volume edited by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman that focuses on Jewish High Holiday prayers, the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Rabbi Hoffman collected several dozen rabbis and scholars who explain the prayers. His prior books focused on Un’taneh Tokef, Kol Nidre, Ashamnu and Al Chet, Yizkor, and the Universalism in the Prayers. This volume contains articles written by several dozen rabbis and scholars of all Jewish denominations, men and women. The book is divided into seven parts and two appendices: two overviews, the liturgy (five articles), the music of Avinu Malkeinu (two articles), precursors, foundations, and parallels (eight chapters), how the prayer book editors deal with naming God (four chapters), Masculine imagery and feminist critique (five chapters), and the use of God’s names (thirteen chapters). There is an appendix on Avinu Malkeinu through time and a second one on alternatives to Avinu Malkeinu. The book also has a dozen pages of notes and a half dozen pages of glossary. The book is easy to read, very comprehensive, and readers will learn much by reading it.

For example, Rabbi Tony Bayfield discusses the radically different views of God by Rabbi Ishmael and Rabbi Akiva. The former thought that God is transcendental and incorporeal. He taught that while the Torah describes God in human form, it “speaks in the language people use,” because while God has no body, unphilosophically-minded humans need to understand God in human form. People need to realize that the corporeal language should not be understood literally. Also according to Rabbi Ishmael, for example, the Bible is filled with repetitions, because this is how people talk – they repeat for emphasis or to make a more flowery statement. Maimonides and rationally-minded people today agree with Rabbi Ishmael’s view. While neither Rabbi Ishmael nor Maimonides addresses the problem of the use of male gender in the Bible and prayers, they would agree that the male gender is used only because this is how people talk.

In contrast, Rabbi Akiva rejected the idea that the Torah speaks in human language and argues for the opposite. He claims that the Torah is divine and every word, indeed every letter, is just as God wants it, and God does not need to repeat. When apparent repetitions appear in the Bible, the repetition is teaching a new idea. Rabbi Akiva felt that God is imminent. God is involved always in this world. People can turn to God for help. The Avinu Malkeinu prayer, based on a legend about Rabbi Akiva, reflects his position and uses his language where he sees God being present, and speaks to God metaphorically as father and king. It is for this reason that people who prefer the approach of Rabbi Ishmael may find a problem with this prayer.